The Ridge Route’s Later Years (And Efforts To Preserve It):
The early Ridge Route didn’t stay un-tinkered-with for long. Less than a decade after the 1919 concrete cap dried, ideas began percolating about expanding its two paved lanes to three. (For the Ridge Route’s earlier history, check out Parts 1, 2, and 3!)
Work on this expansion commenced in 1927, while the Roaring Twenties were still roaring. But the Great Depression soon intervened. The new and improved three-lane version – now known as Highway 99 – ultimately took more than four years to finish.
This massive upgrade not only added a third center “passing” lane but also (following Auto Club engineers’ recommendations) straightened many of the route’s snake-like twists and turns. When completed in October, 1933, the new roadway had eliminated 593 of those hairpin turns, including the infamous “Dead Man’s Curve.” It also created a fresh “alternate” alignment for the southerly 27-mile stretch between Castaic and Gorman, and smoothed the twisty 3.5 mile Grapevine Canyon stretch at the northern end. The pavement was now a luxurious thirty feet in width atop a 46-foot graded road bed.
All told, the new “Alternate” version chopped off ten miles in distance and a full hour’s driving time from the earlier, looping Ridge Route. It was good thing for motorists, but a sad thing for the early businesses that had sprung up beside the original Ridge Route. The new realignment left many of the old roadside establishments marooned, without passing motorists to sustain them.
And even with all the improvements and changes, a cautionary sign at each end continued to warn motorists: “You are now approaching one of the world’s most dangerous highways.”
That handy new central passing lane was no small part of the safety problem. Dubbed a “suicide lane,” it now added its own form of peril, leading to head-on collisions.
In its new incarnation, the southern portion of the road was routed through Piru Canyon, zinging past the iconic “pyramid” in Piru Gorge. So why hadn’t the engineers put the Ridge Route there in the first place? Well, there’d been talk of a dam in the canyon that would have flooded the roadway – so the road had been put elsewhere. Now, however, engineers decided to construct a concrete channel to reroute the water. That left Piru Canyon as a grand spot for the new three-lane road. Or so everyone thought at the time.
An enthusiastic ceremony was held to snip the blue-and-gold silk ribbon and open this “engineering wonder of the world” on October 29, 1933. Featured speakers included Harry Hopkins, chair of the California State Highway Commission. Three high school bands cheerfully helped herald the event. The cost of the new improvements? Some $2.9 million.
The older two-lane version of the Ridge Route still wasn’t paid for, of course. Retiring those bonds would take another thirty-plus years. But by the time the new roadway was completed, the cost of the the realignment had already been covered by the state gas tax. Proponents also claimed it would pay for itself nine times over in the first three years, counting time saved by truckers. It was a creative argument, proving (if nothing else) that frugality depends on the eye of the beholder.
But after the speeches and band music died away, it didn’t take long before engineers were itching for even more embellishments to the road – broadening it this time from three lanes to four, and re-aligning a significant portion of the route yet again.
Initial studies for these latest improvements were launched in 1940. But World War II threw its own money wrench into those plans. Construction finally got going in earnest in 1947, and by 1952 a fresh four-lane was in place.
“It is no good,” grumbled early Ridge Route settler Nell Martinez Callahan, watching the road work in 1947. Ever since the earlier three-lane had gone in, her long-time roadside restaurant and gas station had seen few visitors. Now with the new four-lane, “only the lizards and mountain life” would be left to travel the Ridge Route’s old concrete surface, as a mournful newspaper reporter put it.
The upgraded, rerouted four-lane version of Highway 99 was finished in 1952. Some 44 miles of the old Ridge Route had been rebuilt, at a cost estimated that December at $13.5 million. To combat runaway trucks careening down the Grapevine, escape ramps were added in 1956.
Soon even four lanes weren’t enough. And there was the not-so-small problem of Piru Gorge, too. Remember the proposed dam that hadn’t built? Well, engineers changed their minds on that, once again. Now, a reservoir did seem like a grand idea. And that, of course, meant a lake would sit exactly where the engineers had cleverly run Hwy 99.
Now, the goal was eight lanes, gentler grades, plus a new alignment avoiding Piru Gorge. A ten-year, $103 million project followed, creating what now wasn’t simply an expressway but a full-fledged interstate: I-5. Begun in 1960, this massive project took ten years before it was completed in 1970.
As that project was just getting started, the old garage, general store and post office at Grapevine were razed by Tejon Ranch in April, 1962, in a controlled burn. The old buildings had already suffered damage ten years earlier, in the earthquake in 1952, and the Grapevine commercial center had already been relocated around 1952 when four-lane came through, leaving the old buildings behind.
The magnificent eight-lane interstate would become a huge boon to motorists, of course. But for locals, the ten-year construction phase brought inconvenience in the meantime. “Hail Progress,” was the tongue-in-cheek remark of Frazier Park’s Hill News on August 14, 1964, as the roadwork was going on. The following January, the editor noted the “never-ending” road widening.
In roughly the middle of the grandiose interstate-building, a milestone was passed, unnoticed and unremarked. Remember the early bonds that had financed the original incarnation of the Ridge Route? Those were finally paid off about 1965. Sadly, by the time the debt was retired, the original road itself was largely abandoned.
A decade later, intrepid drivers would still occasionally venture onto the narrow, concrete-paved Ridge Route out of sheer nostalgia or from a sense of adventure. A 1974 visitor observed that the paved section from Castaic as far as Gorman was still “completely intact,” though buried by the occasional landslide in spots. “But even passenger cars can make it with a running start, so fear not,” the writer added encouragingly, recommending that those attempting the journey should bring a shovel along, just in case.
Other adventurers, too, would discover or rediscover the old roadway with its mysterious ruins. Over a decade later, adventurers snapped a photo in 1988 at the site of what once had been the Tumble Inn.
Harrison Scott, a retired telephone engineer, was one of those who fell in love with the old Ridge Route. Beginning in 1991, Scott launched a six-year effort to get the 17.6 miles of the old Ridge Route crossing Forest Service land listed on the National Register. In 1997, his request was finally granted. That 17-mile stretch in the Angeles National Forest remained open to the public until 2005, when heavy rains and wash-outs damaged the roadway. Repairs were made by volunteers and 1-1/2 miles of the route repaved, but that portion of the old Ridge Route was closed to vehicle traffic by the Forest Service for safety reasons. Determined visitors must hike, bicycle, or ride horseback to reach it.
Even today, there’s an allure — a magic — to the beloved old Ridge Route. Although the National Forest portion of the old road remains closed, small sections of the old concrete-paved Ridge Route lying outside the National Forest are sometimes accessible on foot or by vehicle. For current roadway conditions and precautions, plus more history of this amazing road, visit RidgeRoute.org.
The Ridge Route Preservation Organization is a 501(c)(3) organization, and welcomes donations. Members can also participate in clean-up events.
Additional information about the history of the iconic Ridge Route can be found at the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society in Frazier Park, ridgeroutemuseum.org.